A Discourse on John Boyd: A Brief Summary of the US Air Force’s Most Controversial Pilot and Thinker

A Discourse on John Boyd: A Brief Summary of the US Air Force’s Most Controversial Pilot and Thinker

By Dr Michael Hankins

In March 2018, Air University Press released a new edition of Colonel John Boyd’s A Discourse on Winning and Losing with a new introduction by Grant Hammond. On top of his heavy influence in designing the F-15 and F-16 fighters, Boyd was one of the most influential and often cited officers in the history of the US Air Force (USAF), but unlike most famous strategic thinkers, he published almost nothing. Thus, this new edition promises to be possibly the most widely disseminated and studied edition of Boyd’s intellectual output.

JohnBoyd_Pilot
John Boyd during his service in Korea. (Source: Wikimedia)

Boyd is, however, a controversial figure. Among USAF officers, Boyd is either loved or hated. Hammond’s introduction refers to him as ‘legendary,’ ‘a great original thinker,’ and ‘a paragon of virtue – loved by many […] for his character and integrity.’[1] On the other hand, former fighter pilot and USAF Chief of Staff General Merrill McPeak summarised the opposing view: ‘Boyd is highly overrated […] In many respects he was a failed officer and even a failed human being.’[2] Boyd was the type of person who challenged authority and fought for what he believed. He was also the kind of person that was so profoundly insecure that he stalked food courts to hunt down and physically assault people whom he perceived had not shown him proper respect.[3] However, many younger officers have never even heard of Boyd nor are they familiar with his ideas or character. With the recent release of the new edition of his work, it is worth taking time to briefly summarise Boyd’s significant contributions and provide some context as to why he is both so praised and so controversial.

First, we must deal with the notion of Boyd as – according to Hammond – ‘a premier fighter pilot.’ Some have referred to Boyd as the greatest fighter pilot who ever lived, and many press outlets mistakenly refer to him as an ace. Although Boyd did fly F-86 Sabres during a brief tour in the Korean War, he does not have a single air-to-air kill to his credit. He never fired his gun in a combat situation. This is not necessarily an indictment of his skills. The reason is that in those years, the USAF tended to fly in formations in which only the lead element was cleared to fire, while the wingmen provided protection. Boyd only ever flew in a wingman position, and never got in an opportunity to fire at enemy MiG-15s. Later, Boyd became a flight instructor at the USAF Fighter Weapons School, and he wrote a manual on dogfighting tactics. His reputation as a fighter pilot was built on his time as an instructor, during which he displayed a penchant for defeating incoming students in simulated dogfights (developing his claim that he could always do so within forty seconds). Fans of Boyd laud him for this, although his detractors often wonder why an instructor defeating his students using an oft-repeated manoeuvre is noteworthy, much less a point worth bragging about.

Boyd’s first significant contribution to USAF thinking was ‘Energy Maneuverability Theory’ (EMT) in the early-to-mid 1960s. This was an application of the principles of thermodynamics to aircraft metrics. Up until that point, the most important metrics for evaluating fighter planes tended to be wing loading ratios, top speed, and acceleration. Many fighter pilots tried to argue that agility and manoeuvrability were more important in a dogfight, but although wing loading could provide a rough idea of how well a craft could turn, it fell far short of an accurate description of a plane’s manoeuvrability. Boyd’s EMT instead analysed how well an aircraft could change energy states – involving speed, acceleration, kinetic and potential energy – essentially giving a numerical value to how well a plane could manoeuvre under various conditions. Charting this value on a graph corresponding to speed and altitude will give a curve of the aircraft’s manoeuvring capability. This method gave fighter pilots a way to talk to engineers in their ‘language,’ and describe dogfighting in mathematical terms, which had a significant influence on aircraft design. Beginning in the late 1960s, EMT became a significant factor in designing and evaluating American aircraft.

EMT.jpg
This chart, a typical example of the types of charts Boyd produced, compares the agility of an F-4 Phantom II and a MiG-21, but specifically under conditions of a 5g turn. (Source: USAF Academy Department of Aeronautics)

Although Boyd appears to have come up with these ideas independently, he was not the first to do so. A decade earlier, in 1954, an aerodynamics engineer working for Douglas named Edward Rutowski had the same concept. Rutowski’s work did not apply to dogfighting, but to calculating fuel ranges of various types of aircraft.[4] However, the equations – and the charts – are almost the same as Boyd’s, who later admitted to copying the charts after denying it for years.[5] One element that Boyd did add, however, was overlaying the EMT curve for one aircraft on top of another, to show where one aircraft had an advantage in manoeuvrability. These comparisons, first done in the late 1960s, showed that Soviet aircraft of that time might have a distinct advantage in dogfighting compared to the American fighters of the day (which, in that period, were mostly interceptors, not traditional fighters). Thus, while not necessarily completely original, Boyd did more to popularise the EMT concept and apply it to fighter design and tactics training, which then became part of a push within the USAF to design aircraft that were more specialised for air-to-air combat.

Boyd had a hand in the design of those planes. The first major USAF project to design a dedicated air superiority fighter was the F-X program, which eventually resulted in the F-15 Eagle. Boyd was brought in partway through this project and attempted to influence the design toward being more dedicated for dogfighting. To Boyd, this meant making it as small as possible and gutting it of sophisticated technologies, especially radar. The more massive the radar dome in a fighter’s nose, the larger the entire plane needed to be. Making the radar as small as possible (or, as Boyd advocated, eliminating it), could make the plane smaller and lighter. Boyd managed to have a significant influence on the design of the F-15, but he did not get everything he wanted. The plane was significantly more extensive and more sophisticated than he advocated, so in disgust, he turned to another project.[6]

f-15a_first_prototype_1
McDonnell Douglas F-15A (S/N 71-0280, the first F-15A prototype). Note the square wingtips and unnotched stabilator. (Source: Wikimedia)

Using a combination of subterfuge, connections with high-level decision-makers, stealing unauthorised time on USAF computers, and meeting with aircraft manufacturers in secret using coded language, Boyd pressured the Air Force to procure a smaller lightweight fighter. Boyd wrote the requirements for that plane, which happened to match almost identically the characteristics of a plane he had been secretly designing with General Dynamics’ Chief of Preliminary Design, Harry Hillaker. That plane eventually became the F-16 Fighting Falcon—his ideal true dedicated air-to-air dogfighter. However, Boyd was also disappointed by the modifications made to that aircraft. The USAF made it heavier and more sophisticated than he wanted, and so Boyd denounced it in disgust.[7] Indeed, although his vision for the F-16 was a pure dogfighter, the plane has rarely been used in air superiority missions by the USAF and has achieved zero air-to-air kills for the US.

YF-16_and_YF-17_in_flight
An air-to-air right side view of a YF-16 aircraft and a YF-17 aircraft, side-by-side, armed with AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles, c.1972. (Source: Wikimedia)

After his retirement in 1975, Boyd went back to work in the Pentagon as an analyst, and it was during this time that he completed most of the intellectual output in the recently released new volume. This began with a short essay entitled ‘Destruction and Creation,’ which argued that societies and systems only really change when they are destroyed and recreated, rather than reformed from within. In 1976, Boyd received a NASA grant to study the differences in pilot behaviour between simulators and reality. Instead of focusing on that, Boyd produced a study titled ‘Fast Transients Brief,’ which consisted of carefully picked historical examples with which Boyd argued that victory in war was the result of being quick, unpredictable, and agile, with the goal of producing confusing in the enemy. This brief was essentially the first draft of what became a larger briefing called ‘Patterns of Conflict,’ which Boyd continually expanded to include more historical examples of his point. This briefing continued to grow, including more examples, until it became the final form under the new title ‘A Discourse on Winning and Losing.’ In this form, it was a fourteen-hour briefing split into two days. Boyd refused to shorten his briefings or to distribute summaries or slides to those who did not attend, insisting on being given the full amount of time, or nothing.[8]

Also embedded in these briefings was his evolving idea of the OODA loop, which stands for ‘observe, orient, decide, act.’ This was Boyd’s description of the process by which decisions are made at all levels from the tactical to the strategic. Boyd argued that all combatants in a conflict are going through that cycle, and whoever can complete repetitive OODA cycles more quickly will always be the victor. Fans of this theory tend to argue that this insight is revolutionary and secures Boyd’s place alongside thinkers such as Clausewitz or Sun Tzu. Others claim that this idea is very simplistic and offers very little in the way of insight or practical application. Interpreting and applying Boyd’s theory to subjects ranging from warfare to business has become something of a cottage industry. The OODA loop is still taught at US professional military education institutions. Love him, hate him, or merely indifferent, one cannot deny that Boyd has left a legacy and influence.

One final component of Boyd’s life that one must be aware of is his involvement in ‘The Reform Movement.’ During his time in the USAF, he and his followers who pushed for lightweight, dedicated air-to-air combat planes began referring to themselves as the ‘Fighter Mafia,’ and saw themselves at odds with the US government – to the point of depicting themselves as participating in a guerilla war against a government that they deemed as corrupt and ineffective. After Boyd’s retirement, this group morphed into what became known as ‘The Reform Movement’ and moved away from just fighter planes to becoming politically active on broader defence issues. This effort included a litany of journalists, military officers, and politicians who went as far as to form their congressional caucus, as well as non-governmental organisations with the goal of lobbying for particular policies.

The group wanted all US military hardware to be cheap and ‘simple.’ Simple in this context meant technologically unsophisticated relative to the mid-1970s. They argued for cancelling expensive ‘complex’ weapons such as the F-15 and the M-1 Abrams tank and replacing them with cheaper, ‘simple’ alternatives, such as relying on the older M-60 Patton tank or replacing F-15s and F-16s with swarms of F-5 Tigers. ‘The Reform Movement’ was more political than the ‘Fighter Mafia,’ and although the movement attracted some moderates and left-leaning individuals such as James Fallows (journalist for The Atlantic) and Senator Gary Hart (D-CO), it tended to skew conservative. Over time, it grew more conservative with the addition of politicians such as Nancy Kassebaum (R-KS), Newt Gingrich (R-GA), Dick Cheney (R-WY), and possibly its most prominent and active member (who coined the term ‘the Reformers’): self-proclaimed monarchist and white supremacist William Lind.[9] For this group, Boyd was seen as a messiah, and he was often discussed in religious terminology as a saviour preaching a new gospel.

Although this movement had an influential voice in the early 1980s, it had begun to stagnate by the end of that decade, and the 1991 Gulf War discredited many of their arguments.[10] However, despite that war demonstrating the effectiveness of all the weapons systems that the Reformers (and Boyd) had argued against, Boyd himself took sole credit for the success of that war. Boyd claimed he had been the actual author of the ground attack plan, which was not true, and that it would have been even more successful if his ideas had been implemented further.

Boyd is a complex figure, and his influence on the US military, especially the USAF, is impossible to deny. Although the bulk of his work has been floating around the internet for years, having a new edition of his work in an easily accessible and well-produced print edition is extremely useful and quite welcome.

Bibliographical Note

For more information on Boyd, the best place to start is most likely John Andreas Olsen’s 2016 article, ‘Boyd Revisited: A Great Mind with a Touch of Madness’ in Air Power History while the best examination of Boyd’s intellectual output is Frans Osinga’s Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd (2007). Several authors further explore Boyd in Olsen’s edited work Airpower Reborn: The Strategic Concepts of John Warden and John Boyd (2015). A genuinely scholarly biography on Boyd’s life has yet to be written. Hammond’s brief biography, The Mind of War: John Boyd and American Security (2012) is a useful starting point but leans into praise for Boyd to a level that some readers might be uncomfortable with. Robert Coram’s popular biography Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War (2002) has its uses but is little more than hagiography and should be read with a sceptical eye.

Dr Michael Hankins is Professor of Strategy at the USAF Air Command and Staff College eSchool, and and Assistant Editor at From Balloons to Drones. He is also a former Instructor of Military History at the US Air Force Academy. He earned his PhD from Kansas State University in 2018 with his dissertation, ‘The Cult of the Lightweight Fighter: Culture and Technology in the U.S. Air Force, 1964-1991.’ He completed his master’s thesis at the University of North Texas in 2013, titled “The Phantom Menace: The F-4 in Air-to-Air Combat in the Vietnam War.” He has a web page here and can be found on Twitter at @hankinstien.

Header Image: A USAF F-16 Fighting Falcon Block 40 aircraft after receiving fuel from a KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft during a mission over Iraq on 10 June 2008.  (Source: Wikimedia)

If you would like to contribute to From Balloons to Drones, then visit our submissions page here to find out how.

[1] Grant Hammond, ‘Introduction to “A Discourse on Winning and Losing” in Colonel John Boyd, A Discourse on Winning and Losing, edited and compiled by Grant Hammond (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 2018), pp. 1-2.

[2] Carl Prine, ‘Q & A with Merrill ‘Tony’ McPeak,’ San Diego Union Tribune, 23 November 2017.

[3] See, for example, a story of Boyd seeking out a former colleague who had expressed doubt in Boyd’s ideas years before. Boyd put out his cigar on the man’s clothing, then began shoving him and shouting obscenities at him, all in public. Told in more detail in Robert Coram, Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War (New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2002), pp. 179-80.

[4] Edward S. Rutowski, ‘Energy Approach to the General Aircraft Performance Problem,’ Journal of the Aeronautical Sciences, 21 (1954), pp. 187-95.

[5] USAF Historical Research Agency, K239.0512-1066, John Boyd, Corona Ace Oral History Interview, 22 January 1977.

[6] For details on the development of the F-15, see Jacob Neufeld, The F-15 Eagle: Origins and Development, 1964-1972 (Washington DC: Office of Air Force History, 1974).

[7] On this issue, see: Grant Hammond, The Mind of War: John Boyd and American Security (Washington DC: Smithsonian Books, 2012).

[8] These briefings are most thoroughly explored in Frans Osinga, Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd (New York: Routledge, 2007).

[9] For a brief summary of Lind’s extremism (he was known for keeping a portrait of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini in his office), see Bill Berkowitz, “Cultural Marxism’ Catching On,’ Southern Poverty Law Center, 15 August 15, 2003. Lind’s radical right-wing viewpoints are evident from his voluminous writing as the former Director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism, and his many columns in a variety of conservative websites and magazines. His 2014 novel Victoria not only celebrates a violent militia movement overthrowing the American government but glorifies deportations and executions of non-whites and other minorities he deems undesirable, including Jews, Muslims, the LGBTQ community, and it favorably depicts the use of nuclear weapons against African-American populations.

[10] For a summary of ‘The Reform Movement,’ see: John Correll, ‘The Reformers,’ Air Force Magazine (February 2008), pp. 40-4. To see them discuss their ideas in their own words, see: James Fallows, National Defense (New York: Vintage, 1984) and James Burton, The Pentagon Wars: Reformers Challenge the Old Guard (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1993).

What does Time and Space mean for the Airman?

What does Time and Space mean for the Airman?

By Ian Shields

Editorial Note: Between February and April 2018, The Central Blue and From Balloons to Drones, will be publishing a series of articles that examine the requirements of high-intensity warfare in the 21st Century. These articles provide the intellectual underpinnings to a seminar on high-intensity warfare being held on 22 March by the Williams Foundation in Canberra, Australia. In this article, Ian Shields explores the implications of the concepts of time and space for airmen. Using these concepts, Ian explores the differences between the services concerning culture, technology, and decision-making. Understanding these differences is essential if we are to leverage the advantages of each of the domains in high-intensity warfare.

Introduction:

Time and Space bound all military operations. We are used to the idea of trading time for space, although that is primarily applicable to the land campaign. If we think about the time/space relationship in two campaigns separated by a significant amount of history associated concepts show a great deal of change:

  • The Peloponnesian wars – campaign duration, the speed of manoeuvre, communication, size of battlefield/weapon ranges.
  • The First Gulf War – campaign duration, the speed of manoeuvre, communication, size of battlefield/weapon ranges.

It can be argued that time and space constrains airmen; however, we have a different perception and are better able to exploit both time and space.

Nevertheless, before going any further, what do airmen do? In 2010, Colonel Tim Schultz, the then Commandant of the USAF School of Advanced Air and Space Power Studies suggested that airmen ‘project innovative forms of power across traditional boundaries.’ Again, with emphasis, airmen ‘project innovative forms of power beyond traditional barriers.’ The key words here are, ‘project,’ ‘innovative’ and ‘power’ and these are the key to why airmen are different. Given this, this article focusses on four areas: the impact of air power; our cultural differences as airmen compared with soldiers and sailors; the impact of technology; and decision-making before concluding.

The Impact of Air Power

Looking at the world at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, it was well-ordered, firmly based on the idea of the nation-state that was built on Treaty of Westphalia and the Congress of Vienna. Europe was, by historical standards, relatively peaceful with well-defined and respected boundaries.

To alter the balance of power required armies crossing these boundaries which, as we saw in 1914, could have disastrous results. Navies could control trade, impose blockades, and prevent armies moving over stretches of open water but they are themselves constrained by the availability of water; water covers only 70% of the surface of the earth.

large_0000002
The Wright brothers aircraft at Farnborough being inspected by a small group of soldiers, c. 1910. (Source: © IWM (RAE-O 615))

The events of 17 December 1903 changed all that, although it was not appreciated in those terms at the time (or, arguably, ever since): with 100% of the earth covered by air, boundaries drawn on maps and the constraints of the ocean became far less relevant. Again, airmen project beyond traditional boundaries.

While technology did not allow air power to be fully exploited in the First World War, the omens were there. Yes, there was an over-reaction in the 1920s and 1930s with, for example, Stanley Baldwin’s pronouncement that ‘the bomber will always get through,’ but the seeds for air power to exploit time and space in innovative ways began to be appreciated.

Cultural Differences

When exploring the question of what time and space mean for airmen, it is worth also reflecting what they mean for the soldier and the sailor. Time and space considerations bound both far more than airmen.

Take the soldier. Their horizon is limited in both spatial and temporal terms: soldiers may be interested in what is going on over the next hill, but rarely will he or she have to think much further. The modern-day artilleryman may point out the range of his or her weapon systems but compared with the airman they are limited. All too often the soldier’s view is limited to the range of their vision, which is perhaps why he or she may not understand that air power can protect him or her without necessarily being always in sight – or under command.

The sailor, by contrast, is far more used to the open horizons of the blue ocean. His or her vision is bounded not by the trench system but by the curvature of the earth. Away from the shore the sailor enjoys a sense of freedom more familiar to the airman and is used to thinking in large distances. Culturally, airmen have more in common with the sailor than the soldier, and it is perhaps not surprising that we have adapted the nautical methods of navigation – speed in knots, distances in nautical miles, latitude and longitude as our geographic reference system rather than units more familiar to a soldier. The sailor, though, is also more bounded than the airman. Not only does the sailor’s domain stop at the shoreline or the river’s edge, but his or her speed across the oceans is, by our standards, slow while, with obvious acknowledgements to submariners, like the soldier he or she is largely constrained to operating in just two dimensions.

There is a further cultural divide, which is the way the pace of technology has shaped airmen. For the sailor, he or she has progressed from the sail, through steam to nuclear propulsion over many centuries. For the soldier, the path from bows and arrows, via the musket to today’s weapon systems has been a journey of some half a millennium. In contrast, airmen have moved from the Wright brothers through the jet engine to Sputnik and then on to the Space Shuttle in a short space of time. So, our perception of time, driven by the technology that permits us to operate in the third dimension, is fundamentally different.

Airmen even refer to it in our poetry – the definitive High Flight talking of slipping the surly bonds of earth, of wheeling, soaring and swinging high in the sunlit silence and, finally, of reaching out and touching the face of God – sentiments that speak loudly to we who exploit the third dimension and are less constrained by the fourth – time – than our earth- and water-bound brothers.

Less I am accused of too many flights of fancy, let me continue with something altogether more concrete, the impact of technology.

Impact of Technology

Technology allows us to fly and we are inexorably wedded to it as a result. We are at home not just with the advances, but the speed of change: we are adaptable. Technology allows us to challenge the constraints of time and space constantly. We go ever faster, ever further, ever higher to the extent that now it is the human in the cockpit, or in the loop, that becomes the limiting factor with the demands on the human body regarding g-force and life support becoming critical in aircraft such as the Eurofighter Typhoon. The very speed at which our platforms can operate bring new pressures on command, control, and communications, and on the decision-making cycle. So, we can shrink time and exploit it to an ever-greater extent but are we reaching a new plateau with the human body the limiting factor?  If so, we turn again to technology and remove the human from the cockpit – the Remotely Piloted Aerial System (RPAS) – or help with decision-making by more automation.

Remotely Piloted Air System RAF Pilot Badges
RAF Remotely Piloted Air System ‘Wings’, which differ from the current RAF pilot badge by having blue laurel leaves to identify the specialisation. (Source: UK MoD Defence Imagery)

However, is this shrinking or expanding of time? It is both, depending on your viewpoint: it is shrinking because we need less time to undertake actions, or it is expanding because we can achieve more in the same period.

Regarding space, we see a similar dichotomy, the shrinking and expanding of the concept of space. As we move further up – and even out of – the atmosphere, we seemingly shrink space – we have access everywhere from our lofty vantage point in orbit, and it is less and less possible to hide from our gaze. At the same time, we are shrinking space as our targeting becomes ever more precise and our discrimination better. 

Decision Making

Perhaps nowhere is our different approach to time and space more starkly illustrated than in the realm of decision-making. It was, after all, John Boyd, an airman – and a fighter pilot to boot – who came up with the OODA loop – a means of getting inside the enemy’s decision-making cycle – that is of exploiting time.

While air power offers the politician some advantages – being able to posture from afar, being able to deploy rapidly a potent force but one with only a small footprint – the speed and reach of air power (or, to put it another way, our use and exploitation of time and space) offers him or her specific challenges too; the perils of the hasty decision or the too-long delayed choice. For example, if there is verified intelligence of a hijacked Boeing 747 heading for Canary Wharf but presently over central France, when do you intercept it?

These challenges extend ever further down the decision-making process to the commander and, increasingly, to the man or woman in the cockpit: that split-second decision facing the Harrier pilot, Tornado crew or RPAS operator – to drop or not to drop ordnance?

However, perhaps the ultimate tyranny (so far in human history at least) of decision-making regarding time and space has been the advent of nuclear weapons. The initial employment of these weapons of mass destruction in 1945 came about because of long and careful decision-making, but with the range of ICBMs and the proliferation of weapons, both time and space have been shrunk as the decision-making cycle becomes ever more compressed with no chance of correcting mistakes. Moreover, remember that for the first 40 years of the nuclear weapon age, it was airmen alone who were responsible for their delivery.

Conclusion

In this brief article, I have sought to illustrate that we can use time and space – and the relationship between the two – as tools with which to explore air power in a unique way. We can use it to identify differences and similarities with the other domains, and it offers a different means of analysing what it means to be an airman.

Time itself has constrained this article to no more than a cornucopia of ideas, and I have explored neither space (as in outer space) nor cyberspace, both domains of increasing importance.

RAF Typhoon Aircraft During Exercise Capable Eagle
A Royal Air Force Typhoon of No. 1(F) Squadron during Exercise Capable Eagle, c. 2013. (Source: UK MoD Defence Imagery)

Let me offer you three conclusions. First, as airmen, we are more constrained by time and space as we lack permanence and rely on technology to fly at all. Second, as airmen, we are less constrained by time and space because we operate at high-speed, have great reach, are inherently responsive, and have a cultural appreciation of time and space that is unique. Third, new and emerging technologies, as exemplified by fifth-generation air power, will continue to challenge our present perceptions of time, space, and its relationship; the exploitation of both outer space and cyberspace are excellent illustrations of both. To conclude, Francis Fukuyama famously talked about the ‘End of History,’ but perhaps what we are seeing is more an end of TIME and, if not an end then certainly a new appreciation of space.

Ian Shields is a retired, senior Royal Air Force officer who has a wealth of experience as an operator, commander, and analyst. After a 32-year career that saw him command a front-line squadron and reach the rank of group captain, he has more recently established himself as a highly respected commentator on defence and security issues, specialising on aerospace matters. Ian holds post-graduate degrees from King’s College, London, and the University of Cambridge. He currently an Associate Lecturer at the University of Cambridge and writes for several academic and journalistic publications on current issues within defence and international relations.

Header Image: A Reaper Remotely Piloted Air System comes into land at Kandahar Airbase in Helmand, Afghanistan, c. 2011. (Source: UK MoD Defence Imagery)